I was walking down Foster Road this summer during a house/dog sitting gig when I saw a large banner on the side of a store. What I could see as I approached read: Save Foster Road. The buildings in the area appeared run down so I concluded that the sign was a plea to bring attention to the area. The structure that I later learned was the Pharmacy building caught my eye. I admired the curve of the architecture and I could tell it was historical but it felt abandoned.
When I reached the banner, I realized Save Foster Road was a different campaign from what I assumed. I won’t get into details as I plan to visit the topic in a future post. I had forgotten about the building when I was writing posts for the Foster Files. I had been immersed in sidewalk paintings and art trees in the neighborhood but the Pharmacy came back into my consciousness when I saw a photograph posted on the Hidden Portland for the Curious group on Facebook. Jason Pedegana, an illustrator and designer who runs a Facebook site with tons of historical photos, swooped in with information and more photos. The building came alive in my imagination. I saw it in its heyday and sensed its place as the hub of the neighborhood. For a moment it wasn’t suspended in the stasis and decay that I had perceived from the other side of the street.
At the risk of committing the ultimate sin of lazy journalism, I offer up some historical information that Jason posted on the thread on Facebook:
“The roughly 7500 square foot building constructed in 1922, was once home to the Phoenix Pharmacy. Built, owned, and operated by John Leach who lived with his wife on what is now the Leach Botanical Gardens, the pharmacy was centered at the core of the community, considered a gem, and attracted many people to the area. It was actually RE-built by Leach, as the previous owner had tried to burn it down, twice. Hence the name “Phoenix”.
People chimed in with comments and a more complete story of the building formed through descriptions of past tenants, a doctor who had an office in the building, a video store that sold phones which seemed to be one of the last tenants and there was a mention of the second floor having two apartments. Other comments revealed that Buck Froman owns the building. If you ever need an in-person, oral history of the place you can talk to him at his stove shop a couple of buildings down.
I asked the person we were house sitting for about the Pharmacy building when he returned. He told me the building had been unoccupied since he moved to the area in 2004. I felt an emptiness hearing that. My urban idealism wants cool buildings to find new life even when circumstances make it challenging. It’s understandable that renovation costs for seismic upgrades, wiring and plumbing are potentially prohibitive to attract a tenant.
There is plenty of behind the scenes activity going on to preserve the building. A Facebook group, Foster the Phoenix, is devoted to these efforts. Someone associated with the group commented that the city has been involved in looking for ways to get the building back to it’s former glory. A mural was added to the first floor offering a sense that people are looking out for the building.
I admit I’m weirdly nostalgic for things I’ve never experienced in Portland, real street cars, old movie theaters and unique, classic buildings. These days most drug stores are part of a corporate chain so I appreciated the history of this pharmacy that thrived with a staff of happy pharmacists. The story goes beyond Leach’s ability to run a successful business because of the legacy he left behind with his botanical garden. I’m hoping his Phoenix Pharmacy rises again.
The photographs, with the exception of the first and last that appear in this post, are from the City of Portland Archive. Thanks goes to J. Pedegana for his historical input and for bringing photos and this subject matter to my attention. I would have sought more information from him but I ran out of time.